While God made this statement to Adam in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:19), it reminds me of what I’ve spent so much of my time with these days. I am writing this article from the Holy Land where I am excavating the palace on an ancient acropolis. It has thick walls of mudbrick constructed on stone foundations. When uncovered, we have found that a number of the walls have disintegrated badly during the last few thousand years. They really were manufactured from dust and back to dust they have gone! But other walls – properly maintained in antiquity and preserved under the ground in favorable conditions all this time – still look much like they did millennia ago.
Two views of the sun-dried mudbrick walls of an ancient palace at Tall el-Hammam, Jordan, where the author is currently excavating. These mudbrick walls were later burned in a fire. Note a lone mudbrick sitting on the wall to the left. It was found in destruction debris above the floor of this room. Photos: Mike Luddeni.
Mudbricks in the Bible
Mudbricks are not mentioned often in the Bible. Genesis 11:3 is the first mention where those who constructed the Tower at Babel decided to use bricks baked thoroughly (fired in a kiln) instead of stone and they used tar as their mortar. That was an unusual decision in the ancient world, because it was too difficult to kiln-fire mudbricks.
The Ziggurat of Ur in modern Iraq was probably a similar structure to the Tower at Babel. Also a close-up look at kiln-fired mudbricks and bitumen mortar of Babylonian King Nabonidus’ sixth century BC rebuild of the Ziggurat (originally constructed in the twenty-first century BC) after it had fallen into ruins. The kiln-fired bricks were used on the Ziggurat’s exterior while the interior was constructed of sundried mudbricks. This is reminiscent of the reference to construction of the Tower at Babel: “They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar” (Gn 11:3). (ABR file photos)
But the most famous mudbricks passage is in Exodus. The Israelites were in servitude in Egypt and forced to make (sun-dried) mudbricks. But then they were told they had to collect their own straw and still not reduce their quota of mudbricks (Ex 5:7-8). Clearly this was a mass-production operation with supervisors demanding no drop in production (5:19).
A wall painting depicted the ancient Egyptian manufacturing process for mass-producing mudbricks, from the Tomb of Rekhmire, Vizier of Thutmosis III, in the Valley of the Nobles at Thebes. Water is collected from a tree-lined water source (left) and mixed by men with the mud mixture (center) one using an adze and the other his feet; the mixture is loaded into baskets and taken to men forming bricks with molds (above) and the bricks are left to dry in the sun; the dried bricks are collected and carried to the construction site. Inscriptions indicate the workmen are Nubian and Asiatic (Syro-Palestinian) prisoners of war pressed into service to make mudbricks to construct workshops at the Temple of Amun in Karnak. Note the two “superintendents” holding rods. (ABR file photo)
In Isaiah 9:10, with pride and arrogance, Israelites living in Samaria said that while their brick walls had fallen, they would rebuild them – even stronger, with chiseled stone. Of course a structure built of stone from foundation to ceiling would be stronger, and chiseled stone was worked with tools to fit well together and be quite solid. That would also be quite expensive and there frequently wasn’t enough stone available to build structures completely of stone. But the people of Samaria were very self-confident and boasted about something of which they would not be able to follow through.
Nahum warned the mighty Assyrian capital of Nineveh that they should expect a siege from the Babylonians. He told them they should strengthen their fortification – by trampling mud and clay and making mudbricks (Na 3:14). But he also noted it would be of no avail. Nineveh would be taken – and it was.
Before There Were Mudbricks
Archaeological excavations suggest the earliest dwellings in the ancient Near East were natural shelters – caves and rock formations. Where available, they would have been sufficient for small groups of people and frequently served as non-permanent habitation. That meant people could only settle in places where such natural shelter was available.
Then temporary structures – such as huts, tents and pens – were constructed of perishable materials like wood, reeds, branches and maybe even animal skins. They could be located wherever people wanted to live, but were probably not created with the idea of permanency in a single location.
So, ancient communities developed that which was neither natural shelter nor a temporary structure and began constructing permanent dwellings to facilitate a sedentary lifestyle. To accomplish this feat, these early builders began utilizing the most time and energy efficient materials available – readily obtainable stone and mud. Despite variances in climate, water resources, rock formations, soils and vegetation, creation of above-ground permanent structures of rough fieldstone and handmade sundried mudbrick was the most convenient and effective means to enable long-term settlement in a location of choice. With their primary function being protection from the elements, these structures could maintain a comfortable temperature, provide physical protection and even offer a measure of privacy to their inhabitants.
A kiln-fired mudbrick from Babylon inscribed with Nebuchadnezzar's name and titles, today at the British Museum. Being so costly and labor intensive, it was difficult to find enough fuel to sufficiently fire a large quantity of bricks, so most mudbricks in the ancient Near East were sundried. But to demonstrate his wealth and power, Nebuchadnezzar had many of his kiln-fired mudbricks stamped with his name and titles – an archaeological representation of his boasting in Daniel 4:30. It is also possible that one of Nebuchadnezzar’s brick kilns may have been the “fiery furnace” of Daniel 3. Photo: Mike Luddeni
Recovered from the German excavation in Babylon (1899-1914), this is the outer smaller entryway of Babylon’s Ishtar Gate (15’ wide, 30’ high). It has been reconstructed with original blue lapis lazuli kiln-dried enameled mudbricks in Berlin’s Pergamum Museum today. Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar (ruled 604-562 BC) tried to make Babylon the greatest (and possibly largest) city of his day, building numerous government structures with kiln-fired glazed mudbricks on the outside and sun-dried mudbricks on the interior.
Mudbrick Walls Appear
In areas with minimal rain, scarcity of wood and the abundance of sun (like Lower Egypt and the southern Jordan River Valley) sundried mudbricks became the key construction material of their domestic architectural tradition. It was used in the creation of the typical ancient dwelling – a single rectangular roofed space with an adjacent, larger, enclosed and paved – but not roofed – courtyard. Both the dwelling and the courtyard were typically enclosed by stone foundation, but the walls of the roofed broad room were regularly topped with a superstructure of sundried hand-made mudbricks.
Simple mud plaster would have been important for every wall, applied to both external and internal faces. Generally consisting of the same material as both the mudbrick and mortar, the plaster played a critical role in the health of a dwelling. Annually applied successive coats of plaster kept walls dry and durable – thus increasing brick and mortar stability.
An ancient wooden Egyptian brick-mold located now in Cairo’s Egypt Museum. Photo: Mike Luddeni
Mudbricks: Mold-Made and Under the Microscope
Necessity being the “mother of invention,” a revolutionary new building technique provided the appropriate construction material to fuel this increase in urban architecture – the rectangular mold-made sundried mudbrick. As opposed to the hand-formed mudbrick, much greater quantities of available mold-made mudbricks and their uniformed size, greatly facilitated this expanded scale of urbanization and fortification.
Especially in the valley regions of the Holy Land – where large quantities of stone are not so readily available but much soil and clay is – dwelling walls were constructed with mold-made sun-dried mudbricks. A recent study of mudbricks from Middle Bronze Age buildings suggests that the critical factor in mudbrick construction was to have on-hand a sufficient amount for materials available for the bricks, mortar and plaster. Those materials were clay (the most important); sand, silt and temper (often straw) to help bind the brick together, water to thoroughly mix the materials and carbonates (ashy occupational material from current or earlier civilizations levels at the site) to help harden the mixture.
A brick mason using a modern reproduction of an ancient Egyptian brick mold as he produces sundried mudbricks for the reconstruction of the Mortuary Temple complex of Amenhotep III on the western bank of the Nile at Thebes. Photo: Mike Luddeni
Research also suggested the appropriate proportion of these materials was: clay 2:1 to sand, silt and temper; and these sediments combined together 3:1 to water. An appropriate level of carbonates would also be added, as available. Temper included straw, chaff, chopped grasses, weeds, tree bark and small potsherds. But straw was found to be in most of the mudbricks studied. Along with them, sand, gravel and micro-artifacts (small pottery sherds and bone) become “skeletal frames” to which carbonates cling.
The sediment, including straw (left), is mixed with water and placed in the brick mold. Note the newly formed bricks and those which have already been drying in the sun. Each brick has also been stamped on the top with “Memnon” to identify it as a modern, not ancient, brick in the reconstructed Amenhotep III’s Mortuary Temple Complex, Thebes. Photo: Mike Luddeni
It is understood that that sun-dried mudbrick manufacture was confined to the dry season in the Holy Land. Of course the brick-making process would also require a location with close proximity to the sediment and a water source, as well as a large open area to properly dry the bricks. It is suggested that it took forty-eight hours for the clay, sand, silt, straw, water and carbonates admixture to sit – allowing the straw to “ferment” (making the brick stronger) – before it was formed in the mold. Then the formed mudbricks needed a week to completely dry, being turned on alternate sides, before it was used in construction.
Another new mudbrick now ready to be dried in the sun for use in the Mortuary Temple complex of Amenhotep III at Thebes. Photo: Mike Luddeni
Studies have also showed that the mortar between the mudbricks was also manufactured from the same materials as the brick, although mortar often appears darker, indicating it more ash that the mudbrick. Of course, while the bricks themselves needed to be completely dry before construction, the mortar had to be wet.
Then, once walls were constructed and after the mortar had sufficiently dried, the entire wall, interior and exterior faces, was typically coated with mud plaster – again manufactured from the same materials as the bricks and mortar. But there would not have been organic material (straw) and the consistency was different. Plaster was essential to keep both brick and mortar stable, thus the walls dry and durable. In fact, plaster was applied over wall surfaces in successive coats and required regular maintenance. This would be done before and/or after the rainy season because walls needed to be dry for plastering.
Although mud plaster consisted of the same materials as the mudbricks and mud mortar, it could still have an aesthetically pleasing appearance – and there may even have been an effort to use a different clay or sediment source to give it a different look. In fact, lime plaster was known during the Bronze Age in the Holy Land, but because it was more labor intensive and costly, it was seldom used in everyday situations.
Ancient floors were generally constructed of beaten earth, even if it was a mud plaster – not unlike the plaster they applied to their walls. Consequently, mudbrick walls standardly started on top of their stone foundations higher than ground level – to assure that ground water on the floor could seep into the mudbricks. So houses were constructed with stone wall foundations which were dug below ground surface and extend up above the floor level. The initial row of mudbricks would generally begin about a foot above the house floor.
An Early Bronze Age mudbrick house wall with a stone foundation and mudbrick superstructure. Note the doorway and floor on both sides of the door. Excavated at the author’s area at Tall el-Hammam in the Jordan River Valley, Jordan. Photo: Mike Luddeni
Mudbricks and Mankind
As this article began, while excavating ancient mudbrick walls and contemplating this article, I could not help but make the correlation. We are excavating manmade mudbricks that have been in the ground for thousands of years and yet some of them have held up amazingly well when we excavate them.
God made us from the dust of the ground – in a miraculous way – and we become someone of value and important to him. Yet in the beginning and in the end we are just dust!
So we really don’t have much to boast about in ourselves (like the Israelites living in Samaria). But in God’s hands, and following His plan, we can participate in some pretty amazing things and He might even choose to use us in a mighty way.
Close-up view of the Early Bronze Age house at the author’s Tall el-Hammam excavation. On the far side of the doorway (on the right-hand side) is the socketstone for the door, sitting on the floor of the room. The socketstone on that side means that room is inside of the dwelling and the photo is being taken from the open courtyard on the outside – not the connecting wall on the upper right. The hole in the ground in the bottom right of the photo is where a buried storage jar had just been taken out. Photo: Mike Luddeni